EVER since the bridge of Long Lama was completed, many people have been eager to visit the over 100 years old bazaar in this small outstation town, about 143km from Miri.
Before the bridge was built, the bazaar was accessible by river from Miri. An express boat would leave Miri from the now obsolete Kuala Baram terminal early in the morning, reaching Long Lama about 5pm after a stopover at Marudi.
Alex Sim, a retired Agriculture Department officer, told thesundaypost about 15 years ago, it was only possible to reach Long lama by ferry.
Today, you can travel to the town by car from Miri in under three hours.
A friend, who was driving us there, said, “I will be meeting Lee Kee Hong, a colleague from my younger days. I haven’t seen him for many years. Lee is now a grandfather and operator of the first and only petrol station in Long Lama.”
The road to the town from Miri is well paved and linked by many new bridges. There are oil palm plantations on both sides of the road.
Although it was a hazy day, we were not affected as we were travelling in the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle.
Long Lama reception
On arrival, we were warmly welcomed by Lee, whose grandfather, Lee Kai Tai and his two friends, were the first to set foot in Long Lama, a Kayan settlement at the confluence of the Baram River.
The three men paddled from Marudi to barter-trade with the locals looking for salt, cloth, and other products.
They were sent by their towkay from Marudi to explore the commercial potential of Long Lama. Soon, the three pioneers were able to expand their businesses and got the cooperation of the locals to build the first wooden shop houses, opposite the present Long Lama Bazaar next to a longhouse.
Lee recalled the early pioneers were really brave to venture into the interior as headhunting and tribal conflicts were said to be rife in those days.
“After overcoming their initial fears, they started farming and continued with their trading. Other Chinese from Marudi and China also arrived.
“Within a century, the bazaar of Long Lama grew to what it is today – an urban centre with Hilux and saloon cars. Domestic and foreign tourists also come to sample the durians and local fruits,” Lee said.
His petrol station is doing brisk business and vehicle owners, especially oil palm plantation operators, top up there before making the trip to Long Atip, Long Bedian, and other villages in the interior.
Retired journalist Lai Khee Piang has been living in Long Lama for more than 40 years.
“The main road deserves to be called Lee Kai Tai Road because the pioneer did all the work and spent his whole life improving business in the town.
“Without his pioneering spirit, no Chinese would have come and settled here. It was just a longhouse settlement in the 1900s. But now, there are four hotels and many new shophouses.”
Lai, originally from Kuching, had only six years of formal education in Marudi and Miri. He improved in his studies with the help of “two thick dictionaries”, and also attended Chinese and Bahasa Malaysia classes.
His teacher known as Voon from Chung San School, Miri, had complimented him on his success both in business and studies.
When Voon passed away, Lai travelled to Miri from Long Lama to personally hand over a wreath to the funeral parlour.
Many people at the funeral said it was the first time they had seen a wreath with a condolence message delivered to thank a teacher.
Lai told us that during the Japanese Occupation, the people in Long Lama had gone through a lot of sufferings.
To obtain daily essentials like salt, they had to paddle to the coast and take one whole week to reach Kuala Baram where they would boil the sea water to make salt.
On their return, they would bring whatever food they could find. Sometimes, the river flowing seaward was so strong that their boat, sailing against the currents, would be forced to a standstill and they had to wait for the tide to turn.
While waiting, they would boil more sea water to make more salt. At times it would take them one month to obtain salt in this way.
Long Lama now has a waterfront, funded by the Marudi District Council. It’s easily 100 feet above the low tide level.
The Baram River continues to be the lifeline of people in the interior. Although express boats or motor launches have been ‘retired’, longboats continue to be used, bringing wild animal meat, fish, and jungle produce to sell in Long Lama. It’s a tamu-style trade that is more than 100 years old.
Hawkers could be seen opening durians with parangs, while several local tourists indulged happily in a hearty lunch of durians.
While the group were enjoying their durian feast, a man walked down the slope to his longboat with an empty plastic basket. He must have sold all his durians.
Across the river, you could see many fruiting durian trees. They were cultivated by both the pioneers and are now enjoyed not only by the people of Long Lama but beyond as well.
Durian and birds’ nests
As early as 1905, it was known that the Chinese had traded in birds’ nest with the local proprietors like ‘the Dollar Princess’, the granddaughter of Aban Jau, wrote MacDonald (1958).
Many Kayans have profited from birds’ nests business with Brunei, China and local traders in the last 100 years. Perhaps there are still more swiftlet caves to be discovered and explored.
Long Lama is also known as a durian town. Most of the fruits from Miri come from this town. Now that the road has been completed, many Miri businessmen come to Long Lama to look for durians directly in the durian gardens.
Some villagers also bring durians directly to Miri in their vehicles.
The Kee Tee Primary School was established in 1947, due to the pressing need to educate the boys and girls in the settlement. When the school first started, it had just one room for 40 students. All expenditures were covered by school fees and donations from local businessmen.
Like other Chinese-medium schools in Sarawak, Kee Tee expanded slowly. The first building was completed in 1951, followed by more expansion projects in 1964, with some government aid, and 1978.
The management board, comprising local Chinese leaders, continues to help with basic needs while the government assists with grants.
The basketball court next to the school compound is also used as a community hall. Youths on holidays enjoy playing basketball indoors.
At the moment, the hall is incomplete. It has a roof, a good stage, but no walls yet. Hopefully, according to Lee, there will be a new government grant to build the walls.
According to reports, a road to Mulu, 160km away, will soon be built. Feeder roads to Tinjar will follow. The news is positive for the people of Long Lama.
The various communities have a cordial relationship, doing business, and expanding the bazaar and the farms around Long Lama.
Ramina Jerry, a former SMK Long Lama student, from Long Lellang, recently attended her school reunion.
She told thesundaypost, “We’re happy to see Long Lama well developed now. Before, there were only wooden shop houses and if we wanted to buy books, we had to go to Marudi in a motor launch, taking at least half a day.
“Then we had to think where to stay. If the teachers brought us downstream, we were only too happy to go for an outing which seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. We’re grateful SMK Long Lama has educated many of us from the surrounding areas.”
Ramina is happy there are now more coffee shops and hotels in Long Lama and she also hopes the food outlets will also improve to attract more local tourists who may like to try wild boar, venison, ulu fish, and exotic jungle vegetables cooked local style.
She is also happy that more local women are getting employed, saying this will definitely help to increase the income of families in Upper Baram.
Local tourists will definitely come to visit Long Lama to enjoy its fresh food, freshwater fish and fruits – and perhaps even a special Long Lama ice kacang or mee hoon and birds’ nests soup at wholesale prices.